Turbocharged cruise in the Atlantique

Supercars are inevitably Italian, German or British - Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus, even McLaren; possibly Aston Martin or TVR. Even Jaguar qualified with its XJ220, while Bugatti, had it not foundered, would definitely be included.

But a French machine which tops 290 kilometres per hour is hard to accept, despite the fact that French engines more or less dominate Grand Prix racing in the shape of Renault and Peugeot.

Renault engines have won six of the 10 Grand Prix races run so far this year, giving Jacques Villeneuve a fighting chance of taking the driver's championship in only his second season in Formula One.

On the front row for last week's German Grand Prix at the high-speed Hockenheim circuit was Gerhard Berger's Renault-powered Benetton and Giancarlo Fisichella's Peugeot-engined Jordan, as sure an indication as any that the French are now a force to be reckoned with.

Berger went on to win the race from Schumacher's Ferrari.

The Venturi Atlantique is powered by a turbocharged, three-litre V6 Renault motor. In fact, most of the running gear comes from the Renault Alpine A610 which itself was quite an impressive supercar in its day.

The engine is the rather agricultural Peugeot-Renault-Volvo unit which all three manufacturers used in the early 1990s, but in the lightweight Venturi it seems to work well. Turbo lag from the engine is imperceptible but at low speeds, torque is somewhat lacking.

The engine itself, venerable as it is, while utilising an aluminium block and cylinder heads, only has two valves per cylinder and an unfashionably low compression ratio. But the addition of a turbocharger manages to persuade the three-litre lump to offer up 281bhp at a low 5,300rpm. Showing its age, the V6 is red-lined at 5,800.

Turbocharged and upgraded specially for the Venturi - it's not built by Renault any more - the unit churns out sufficient power to take you from zero to 100 km/h in less than six seconds. And despite the inevitable muting of the exhaust note due to the turbo, the V6 sounds wonderful. Angry and in a hurry.

Based on a steel chassis, the Venturi is plastic - but plastic of a very high quality and fit. If you didn't know better, you would think it was steel, so well is it finished.

For plastic, read fibreglass which translates into a lightweight machine with incredible performance. Built in a modern, purpose-built factory at Nantes in Brittany, Venturi is now funded by a Thai group following the original company's unfortunate demise in the recession of 1995.

The interior of the Venturi is pure luxury although you are reminded of the origins of the ancillaries with rather nasty Renault column switches. The instruments, though, are a driver's dream - black on white and easy to read. Drawbacks are few. There is nowhere to rest your clutch foot - an automatic is promised for October this year - and there is a lack of adjustment of the driver's seat for long-legged occupants. The clutch is also uncomfortably heavy, much like early Ferraris and some Lamborghinis, but unless in stop-start traffic, most people would not find this a serious flaw.

The gear-knob is carbon fibre - a nice touch - as are parts of the dashboard, while the seats are sumptuous leather. As with the car's body, the cockpit is remarkably well finished. It looks as if it has been designed as a whole not, as some so-called kit cars are, simply a raid on someone else's parts bin.

There is a fair amount of road thump from the low profile Michelins and although an authoritative British motoring magazine described the suspension as 'a little bit too soft', on Hong Kong roads it is perhaps a little too firm.

Every bump and ripple is felt, but as distances are relatively small here, it does not become a real problem. Venturi was introduced into Britain in 1992 and in original form was a rather ugly machine, although it still had the kind of performance expected from a supercar.

A one-make racing series was instigated and in 1993 an attempt was made on the Le Mans 24-Hours endurance race with the then 500LM model and a number of obscure but wealthy drivers.

The most notable of these racers was Stephane Ratel whose current claim to fame is to fight Bernie Ecclestone in the French courts for control of GT racing which Mr Ratel claims should be his baby.

Thai group, Nakarin-Benz, now owns Venturi, taking over the ailing French concern last year, with ex-Lotus, ex-Lamborghini man Mike Bishop in control.

Hong Kong's newly appointed distributor for Venturi is Hong Kong Motor, a specialist company based in Kwun Tong which claims it can supply any car, regardless of make, and often despite lengthy waiting lists.

The Venturi Atlantique sells for a not unreasonable $1 million. That's supercar motoring at an affordable price.